for Nelson Mandela
and Abraham Serfaty

A man is in prison
He is black
his eyes are filled with coals and a future
He is tall
with his back to the sly volcano of history
The rainbow rains on his tongue
to leave there the slurry of words
that a people will sing while dancing
on the threshold of death-houses
He’s too big for his cell
when he lies down
his feet stick from the peephole
and go frolic on the walls
His bird hands without wings
reach for the stars
to gather there the native honey

A man is in prison
He is white
but truly white
with his white beard of a god in exile
his nose of a nomadic eagle’s
his white heart
his white hands
where pain has scored
gigantic grooves of desire
roads through the heart of the jungle
maddening letters
in Kufi script
an enigmatic cross
an eye without lashes
a plow and corn sheaves
a small checkerboard black and white
and a clutch of hatchings for as many births

A man is in prison
He’s the colour the painter dreams of
without ever getting it right
He’s from a country
that even poets could not imagine
The mythical frontiers of blood
rebound on the down of his chest
and fall
He comes from the Graal and the planet’s forgotten Third
from the holds of slave ships
and the auctioned reserves of the First Peoples
He is Arab and Jew
Palestinian and Chilean
He is all men
all women
the mutant of languages and sexes
the gentle warrior of peace
He is the compass of a smile in darkness

A man is in prison
He is in love
of a love that would blanch Qaïs and Laïla
Abélard and Héloise
Dante and Béatrice
Everything in him is love
He does not look at beings
he cherishes them with his pupils
he does not lift
does not displace
does not put things down
he strews at their feet the petals of dew
and passion fruit
Hard bedding is his mistress
the tree his twin brother
water the binder of his blood
He is the swallows’ promised one
the breeze’s
the clouds’
night’s frozen lover
of the pared daybreak
of the rebel swell
Everything in him is love

A man is in prison
he has nothing to add
for he has said the essential
« That which every corpse should know »
and the living only hear with a distracted ear
oh so absent-mindedly
like this :
to live, what stroke of luck
but it must still serve some purpose
or this : « If you want to trace a straight furrow
you’d better hitch your plow to the stars »
or this perhaps :
no need to look far for the tyrants
they’re right here under your skin
and don’t forget this :
men are born slaves and unequal
the crux is that they should not remain so
You see
this man has nothing to add

The prison where our man lives
is round and square
near and far
It is of yesterday and tomorrow
underground and lost in the clouds
flesh-eating and vegetarian
It’s a shack near a mosque in a shanty town
a palace in bad taste
propped on crutches
a glass building with breathtaking view
on a death camp
It’s a floating island
a hypermarket
an up-ended pyramid
a train without driver
a sieve hiding the sun
prison bars planted in the desert
a door closed
in the sea’s face
an unused aircraft
a worn stinking mind
a maze in the fortune-teller’s crystal ball
a river turning tail
a fly tearing off its legs
to free itself from the glue
and most of all it’s in me and you
in us

A man is in prison
He’s not the best of his kind
nor the worst
You may say he knows well the executioner
that he’s met God
and then lost sight of him
He played hide and seek with death
climbed the highest peak in the world
discovered paradise in hell
and vice versa
He found the best answer
to the philosophical question of suicide
He reads dreams like a Talmudist
and eats at the table of delirium
He is the most sensual of saints
He laughs, oh man does he laugh
as if it were not allowed by law

A man is in prison
Suddenly he discovers
the true face of freedom
this cat which devours its own litter
this scorpion stinging itself with its dart
when it realizes that it is trapped
The superb ogress
the lover who kills to make live again
take it or leave it
And he was a willing taker
of astringent liberties
humus of a world lost in what’s to be
incomparable emerald at the gazelle’s ankle
mistress of esperanto and wanderings
unblemished page where only children
born from the androgyne wave
will be recorded
Freedom of blessed risks and dangers
of the severed hand celebrating the devastating blood
of storm over the desert blighted with hunger
of human seismic shocks
human only too human
avenging all the iniquitous deaths

A man is in prison
He talks to the wall
to the mirror of all mirrors
and tells it his story :
I was born between springtime and autumn, the year of the Tiger, in a town which since
has been renamed seven times
It hurts when some-one mentions the name of my country
but good god what a sun
how it brings fruit to man’s mouth when it smiles
what madness in the morning
when it administers the sacrament of jasmin and of cloves
This land has gifted me so much
that I wanted to give back in kind
But it was not the done thing to do
« Passion is not permitted. Move on, move along, the loudspeakers blared. Clear out your heart. Close your eyes, your nose, shut your trap, Keep moving, there are no swines here, keep your pearls to yourself. And watch it, watch out for stubborn lovers ! »
How could I resist, oh mirror of all mirrors ?
And here I am now certified mad
chained to the deaf walls of your reflections
and nearly happy to be so
for I did not let my passion down

A man is in prison
He does not wait
He doesn’t have the time
He will be painter and poet and musician
He invites the butterfly of words
to that fright that grows roots
He refutes the nickname of colours
so that the canvass white
may free his lurking demons
He makes the cry of silence live again
to orchestrate the symphony of giving
Unshackled from the body
he walks
taking the secret path
that leads from wound to soul
from soul to seed
from seed to twig
from twig to blossom
from blossom to the tenuous orchid
of hope
from hope to clearsightedness
from clearsightedness to tears
from tears to fury
from fury to love
from love to this strange madness
of believing in mankind after all

And, oh by the way
a man is in prison


Extrait de Tous les déchirements
Translated by Breyten Breytenbach